Sister Alice by Robert Reed
I just finished Robert Reed's Sister Alice, and I am very much impressed. (Note that both Orbit, in paperback, and Tor, in hardcover, submitted this book for the Campbell Award.) Here is a novel that stimulates thought and conversation -- I found myself discussing it with Kij, thinking it through out loud even though she hadn't read it. It inspires one to pondering the Big Questions.
In many ways, this could have been written as fantasy rather than SF, but it would have lost a lot of its threat and realism, if you can call it that. This is a story about gods and about humanity, and what it means when a simple, though good-hearted, human child (well, a child in terms of immortals) is prematurely granted god-like powers in order to save the universe (no, really). These powers (called "talents") are never really explained, nor is the mechanism for just about anything in the book, which is why it feels like fantasy. But of course such millions-of-years advanced technology would appear as magic. How could we understand its workings? So I never felt cheated.
An important line is this: "We are nothing but talents, really. We are genius and power and focus and skills beyond number [...] In every consequential way, [our bodies] are nothing... nothing but clothes donned for the narrowest of occasions..." Is this not also true of us primitive humans? If you strip away the things we do and how we think and our innate talents, who are we? But is a creature who is almost entirely comprised of add-on talents still a human? A creature who can off-handedly destroy inhabited worlds and create universes -- is that still human?
I suspect what's going to happen after the story ends is that Ord will return to stop the great, ancient, but foolish gods from building the "umbilical" to the new universe again and again, an infinity of times. Each time will end as it does here, with variations of himself going through to the new universes and setting them alight with life. He is honorable, sacrificial, and empathetic, so these universes could well turn out better than ours does. So our galaxy will be destroyed over and over in order to populate the infinity of universes with a nobler form of life. So Ord is a multi-god... while still a child compared to the other gods, particularly the mother and father of the universe-creation machine, his Sister Alice and Father Ian.
I believe the whole point boils down to what Ian said about talents and what makes a person human. Ian is no longer human by just about any measure -- in fact, he no longer contains anything organic, including his brain. Which was partially rebuilt 10 million years ago in the shape most desired by those testing people. So he was never really human; I think Alice suggests this when she defiles the ancient painting of their clone-father Ian, adding cables routing through him. Few of the other ancient god-humans contain much human in them anymore, either, but a couple of them recognize this and also recognize that only the "Baby" Ord is worthy of passing through to build new universes, the ultimate terraformer.
What a huge and amazing novel! I would have been so frustrated reading it as five novellas; as a single volume, it works wonderfully. I highly recommend this.
By the way, I've noticed that the term "space opera" (and the recently coined "New Space Opera") is getting applied to all kinds of stories, typically epic and taking place in space. But it also often seems mis-applied, especially when applied to stories like this. Sure, this is epic and all those other things, but it's not an adventure like anything along the lines of the early space operas. I guess we're seeing another evolution of the genre here, as well. Fascinating that what was once scoffed has grown into a mature playground for SF.